Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin possesses a style that's unlike any other in our modern aesthetic, for better or for worse. Try to imagine a time capsule discovered from the silent era of cinema; inside, it reveals motion pictures handled in the period's style, only with splashes of color and lines of audible dialogue spliced within text cards, exaggerated facial performances, and vintage construction. Vignetting -- that blurring or darkening of an image's outer contours -- often cradles the frame as Maddin moves from long-bodied conversational focuses, while kitschy-yet-perfunctory visual gris-gris are scattered across odd little comedic situations. His surrealist creations are indeed odd, curiosities that pivot on a tongue-in-cheek rhythm that often deems them too stilted for everyone's tastes. Yet that's also part of their charm, concoctions of quirk made appealing for their inspired creativity. They can be challenging, beautiful, mesmerizing, and downright frustrating, but they're always singular.
Zeitgeist Video have offered a collection of five -- seven, actually, five feature-length and two short-subject -- films from the peculiar director in a set entitled The Quintessential Guy Maddin: Five Films from the Heart of Winnipeg. Essentially, this package recycles the discs they've already pressed for the films into one elegant little four-disc clear-case package, while slipping in a set of five matte poster cards and wrapping it all up with a peephole-riddled cover. "Quintessential" might be a bit misleading of a title since it doesn't contain some of the director's more lauded works, such as The Saddest Music in the World, Brand Upon the Brain!, and the currently-unavailable (but often-rumored as a Criterion release) My Winnipeg. Those that it does contain, however, are certainly "essential" for fans of the director's faux-German Expressionist flare. Reviews for the single releases of Careful, Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary, and Cowards Bend the Knee are available on DVDTalk.
Maddin's second feature-length film, following Tales from Gimli Hospital (ostensibly and unfortunately absent for this collection), plants its surrealist feet in the middle of Archangel, an embattled town that hasn't caught wind of the end of World War I. A one-legged soldier named Boles (South Park writer/producer Kyle McCulloch) meets a woman, Veronkha (Kathy Marykuca), there that bears a striking resemblance to his dead wife, which doesn't sit well with his waning memories. She, in turn, has a soldier husband plagued with amnesia, where he perpetually thinks it's their wedding night. Within the speckled, sleepy haze of Maddin's Expressionist melodrama revolving around the groups' interrelations, Archangel has an easier time communicating haunting monochromatic visuals and peculiarities than keeping tabs on its storytelling -- or its pace, which moves a bit sluggishly. But the visuals it does concoct can be spectacular as it comes together into one of the more unusual war films ever created, especially considering its odd propaganda-like embellishment of beastly, cannibalistic enemy soldiers.
Chronologically following through Maddin's films offers a taste of culture shock in the catapult between Archangel and Careful, an obscure and absurd surrealist farce that speaks softly in tone but loudly in context. It takes place in an Alpine village named Tolzbad where loud noises, or even talking in too loud a voice, could spark an avalanche. The town also seems to rigidly restrain its emotional and sexual sensibilities while holding back its voices, erupting at odd-and-end moments throughout this visually hypnotic contraption of a picture. Ghostly premonitions, cavernous hallucinations, incestuous relationships, and severed animal vocal chords drape over Maddin's idiosyncratic usage of color, which comes together into a pleasantly odd experience that flippantly toys with the fabric of timidity and repression. It's one of Maddin's more concept-focused works, which heightens the punch behind the overextended drama and bizarre nether-worldly allure that hallmark it.
Twilight of the Ice Nymphs:
Guy Maddin's fantasy patchwork of purples and greens feels like an episode of Fairytale Theater that's lost in a disgruntled fog, one focused on a spin on Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Opulent best describes the whimsical island of Mandragora featured in the film, lavish to the eyes while the story weaves through a hazy environment where the sun never sets. Maddin uses color footage here while employing a higher budget, and he makes the most of it by lengthening his down-tempo whimsy into a thick ninety minutes. The characters' densely-woven dialogue, the sun-bloomed pastel colors, and the lengthy molasses-like exposition don't bode well for Maddin's style, as Twilight of the Ice Nymphs more lulls its audience into a capricious daze than truly spellbinding them. His off-beat character stiffness works best amid the windswept coarseness of endearing silent-era construction, made obvious by the trying flow of this high-gloss, low-energy melodramatic fantasy. It's worth sticking through it, though, to reach the crazed pink-drenched collage of fire, spikes through a man's cranium, and scrambling ostriches that propel it in the conclusion. It's just not an easy one to get, let alone get through.
An avant-garde director's take on a conventional idea or concept always renders unique results. Dracula marks Guy Maddin's first real foray into a lucid, straightforward concept, spruced up with his signature visual flare. He captures the Royal Winnipeg Ballet Company performing their production of Dracula within a more staunchly-focused silent film method than he's accustomed to, while strategically splashing color into the black-and-white image by way of rosy cheeks, billowing green smoke from an organ, and Dracula's cape. You really don't have to be a devotee of Maddin's work to appreciate the exquisiteness rendered here, especially in an astounding, fantastical snow-laden dance between Dracula (Zhang Wei-Qiang) and Lucy Westenra (Tara Birtwhistle) right at the core of the film. It's not the only captivating coup d'état, though, as Maddin's imaginative eye proves a splendid one for the gothic ballet's many brooding beats. Somewhat conventional, sure, but a stunning take on Bram Stoker's context within performance art. If you've seen variants of Dracula via stage or ballet, like the Atlanta Ballet's annual production, this will certainly compel.
Cowards Bend the Knee:
It's only fitting, then, for Guy Maddin to come back and slather his audience with an aggressively figurative swarm of strange in Cowards Bend the Knee, something of an autobiography as only the Canadian director can muster. Psychosomatic grayscale imagery involving hockey players, beauty salons that double as abortion clinics, and transplanted hands unable to cup naked breasts populate this unique curio, which hits quite a few shocking beats as it erratically jerks between discombobulating frame jitters. The buzzing tone achieves an explicit potency in a sequence right at the center, driven by the snip-snips of a beauty salon and the darting glances of aggravated people across a cramped path of mirrors. His aim here with this brief feature -- originally intended as a series of ten peep-hole snippets to be viewed at the Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery -- is to generate unsettling primal emotion within a contorted and creative spin on Maddin's life story. And it works, pushing buttons and challenging both its audience's patience and nerve, only I'm still not sure if I actually liked what I saw.
Video and Audio:
It's tempting to leave the audiovisual section completely blank here, not because Zeitgeist's presentations of Guy Maddin's films are poor, or that the visual/aural quality doesn't "matter", but because most of these pieces of work are so stylized and intentionally shopworn that it almost makes critiquing their digital stability and clarity a fruitless venture. His pictures lovingly embrace dirt, speckles, damage, heavy grain, erratic dashes of color, reel shift markers, dancing hairline points ... the works, all part of Maddin's design. The only film that doesn't fit this description as tightly is Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary, an unfortunate occurrence since it's a gorgeous 1.85:1-framed film that hasn't been enhanced for widescreen televisions here (just like its previous DVD incarnation). Colors do remain rich and extremely well-balanced in both Careful and Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, in a relative intent-aware sense, while the sharpness of detail and grain preservation remains stable and apt to the director's vision across all the films. Audio also comes in an array of 2-channel Stereo tracks that fit the same sort of description as the visual treatment: often poppy and harsh, yet intermittently capable of splashes of crisp, clean aptitude in vocal delivery. Just sit back, relax,and enjoy the weather-beaten vintage of his aesthetic.
Note that the disc for Careful is the "Restored and Repressed" disc Zeitgeist released that's been stricken from HD elements, not the Kino disc from 2000. The rest, however, are just as they've appeared in the previous editions.
This Quintessential Guy Maddin! set unwillingly bundles together all of the special features attached to the individual releases, coming together into a fairly extensive array of supplements. Insightful Audio Commentaries adorm all of the primary feature-length works, though it's hard to get used to the idea that the majority of Maddin's works -- to which he reveals little nuggets of his construction -- aren't simply discovered films from the '20s-'30s. In the fray, a documentary on Guy Maddin's early films made in '97, Waiting for Twilight (59:58, 4x3), delves into Maddin's humble genesis as a filmmaker and the relationships he established on the way. With those, several other additions -- photo galleries covering concept art and set construction, a few behind-the-scenes tastes -- tack onto these meat portions. Furthermore, two of Guy Maddin's Short Films (The Heart of the World, and Odilon Redon) can be found scattered on the discs as well.
The Quintessential Guy Maddin! collection covers the underexposed corners of the idiosyncratic director's oeuvre, a kaleidoscope of unique but challenging features that might dazzle the eyes and frustrate the mind at the same time. The thing to keep in mind is that they're farcical, purposefully-stilted comedic works of offbeat expressionist art, each offering enough uniqueness to be worth some of its nerve-grinding emotional flow. Some are more captivating than others; Careful's cleverness around repressing sound and sensation to keep an Alpine village from an avalanche proves a fertile ground for the director's tongue-in-cheek quirk, while his capturing of the Royal Winnepeg Ballet's off-stage performance of Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary will astound just about anyone with an appreciation for performance art, Stoker's prose, or gothic visual lyricism as a whole. Archangel and Cowards Bend the Knee both offer glimpses into his more stalwart, disquieting voice. And, without any other way to say it, the sluggish opulence of Twilight of the Ice Nymphs really didn't go down well, seeming too wooden and waxy to strike any kind of aesthetic or affective chord. Those who have purchased a few of the director's works won't find anything fresh in this new collection from Zeitgeist, but it's a finely Recommended set for those with few or none of the director's pictures.